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Can NASA go back to Aeronautics and Space now?


On Thursday, Dec. 2, Rosie Redfield sat down to read a new paper called, "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Despite its innocuous title, the paper had great ambitions. Every living thing that scientists have ever studied uses phosphorus to build the backbone of its DNA. In the new paper, NASA-funded scientists described a microbe that could use arsenic instead. If the authors of the paper were right, we would have to expand our notions of what forms life can take.

Redfield, a microbiology professor at the University of British Columbia, had been hearing rumors about the papers for days beforehand. On Monday, NASA released a Sphinxlike press release: "NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." Like a virulent strain of bacteria, speculation exploded over the next three days. "Did NASA Discover Life on One of Saturn's Moons?" asked Gawker, a Web site that does not often ask questions about astrobiology.


As soon Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. "I was outraged at how bad the science was," she told me.

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

None of the scientists I spoke to ruled out the possibility that such weird bacteria might exist. Indeed, some of them were co-authors of a 2007 report for the National Academies of Sciences on alien life that called for research into, among other things, arsenic-based biology. But almost to a person, they felt that the NASA team had failed to take some basic precautions to avoid misleading results.

I'd like to see NASA recapture the attention and admiration of America and the world by turning back to aeronautics and space and leave this stuff, its global warming focus and its outreach to Muslims to others.

Seems to be the smart thing to do.


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Comments (13)

Space...the final fronti... (Below threshold)

Space...the final frontier...

as in 'maybe we'll get around to that after everything else'.

I was intensely skeptical o... (Below threshold)
Jay Guevara:

I was intensely skeptical of this out of the chute, for a number of reasons, not least because a general switch from P to As changes structures, reactivities, and the relative rates of reactions in metabolic pathways, so it was hard to believe. Glad to see some detailed analysis of the claims.

Note to members of the Church of AGW: this is how science actually works. One research group proposes something, others scour the proposal for flaws, in particular scrubbing the data rigorously.

The refusal of AGW high priests to release their data or their code obviates analysis, and thereby guts the scientific method, forcing us to reject the proposal until and unless all - I say again, all - of the relevant information is provided (data, code, the works) so that skeptics can convince themselves of the soundness of the methodology.

But those microbes had "bil... (Below threshold)

But those microbes had "billions and billions" of atoms of arsenic and no phosphorus. Oh well, maybe just a little phosphorus...

My calendar shows today as.... (Below threshold)

My calendar shows today as...

  1) Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day


  2) First of Muharram (First day of the first month in the Islamic calendar;
      making it the Islamic equivalent of New Years Day)

NOT on the calendar, and almost unmentioned anywhere, is that today (Dec 7) is also the 38th anniversary of the Apollo 17 launch; the very last manned lunar exploration mission.

This is very personal to me, as described in

 Adventure of a Lifetime


 The Adventure - Continued


"I'd like to see NASA recap... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

"I'd like to see NASA recapture the attention and admiration of America and the world by turning back to aeronautics and space and leave this stuff, its global warming focus and its outreach to Muslims to others."

Rick, NASA has always been about science, not simply the study of "aeronautics" and "space" just for the sake of doing it. The study of aeronautics was a means to and end--ie getting into space and exploring what's out there. It's not a means in and of itself. The Space Shuttle was never the main objective, but the vehicle to get to an objective.

Why would there even be a reason to explore space if scientists weren't going to study what's out there? You do realize that experiments are a vital part of this kind of research, right? They don't just go into space and build big neato rockets for the hell of it. There are specific scientific (and yes, geopolitical) reasons for space exploration. That has been the mission since day one.

Jay G. brings up a really g... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

Jay G. brings up a really good point about how science works:

"The refusal of AGW high priests to release their data or their code obviates analysis, and thereby guts the scientific method, forcing us to reject the proposal until and unless all - I say again, all - of the relevant information is provided (data, code, the works) so that skeptics can convince themselves of the soundness of the methodology."

It's true. In order to understand such a complex topic (and to move the debate beyond pure political argumentation), all of the data and methodology needs to be available. As Jay argues, THAT is how science works. Ideas are put out there, along with data, and other scientists review the ideas/data and either accept or reject them. It's a continual process, and all sides need to be open to new ideas, different ideas, opposing views--and the possibility that the pet theory of the week could get ditched in light of new information. Hence the reason why science is definitely not about absolutes knowledge, but about an ongoing process.

Unfortunately, discussion and debate about these sorts of issues get messy when different sides can't put their ideological differences aside for a while. Happens all the time.

Good points though, Mr G.

This kind of research by NA... (Below threshold)

This kind of research by NASA (the topic) makes sense to me. Unless or until we find another planet in a garden zone where water exists above freezing and below boiling, any life out there is going to be very different from us (carbon and water based, oxygen breathing).
However, the "science" behind this paper is so terrible it has no place outside of Amazing Stories or another speculative fiction outlet.
NASA needs to get put back on track.

I'm going to back ryan up o... (Below threshold)

I'm going to back ryan up on #5 unless someone can give me a compelling reason not to. It's not just about getting into space. It's also about exploring the possibilities of what's out ther before we even get there.

The problem lies in how they're going about that. And it's already been said here. They didn't bother to subject their theory to rigorous outside examination before announcing a blockbuster statement, which denotes a much larger problem with NASA than what sciences they study. They're not NASA anymore. They're a conglomeration of scientists from varied backgrounds who intend to farm out the delivery systems to conduct experiments in space. They should just rename it American Space Scientists (ASS).

Until there is a change in ... (Below threshold)

Until there is a change in the current administration, as in an election that defeats the (P)resident, NASA is stuck with its current political appointee who determines where research is directed.

Just remember, elections DO have consequences.
This is just one of the many manifestations.

"Can NASA go back to Aer... (Below threshold)

"Can NASA go back to Aeronautics and Space now?"

Or just change their name and take the "Aeronautics" out of it. Ryan is right though. There's nothing wrong with studying the possibilites of what they may find out there. What's happened here with this paper though denotes a much deeper problem.

Oh that's nice. I posted m... (Below threshold)

Oh that's nice. I posted my first comment and got an error. I checked to see if it posted anyway and it didn't show up. Didn't want to retype all that and posted again, but shorter. Now the first comment is there.

We have other organizations... (Below threshold)
jim m:

We have other organizations that can spend time doing real science on biology etc. NASA should be spending its time exploring space and finding new ways to do just that. NASA's mission is to enable the other science to happen.

AS for this paper it is a tragedy. They did a half-assed experiment and reached a conclusion that was totally unfounded. I have seen people on the internet hyperventilating that this somehow proves that life exists elsewhere in the universe and that this organism might itself be of extraterrestrial origin.

If this had been presented in a high school science fair it wouldn't have stood a chance of winning. That's where NASA stands today: Crap science that a 17 year old could do better.

Any questions as to how bad... (Below threshold)
jim m:

Any questions as to how bad this so-called science was can be answered here:






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